Building Resilience in Children

We’ve all experienced what happens when a toddler doesn’t get their way: the meltdown – crying, screaming, maybe even lying on the floor and banging their fists. Though it seems extreme, this is a perfectly normal and healthy response for an immature brain that cannot yet manage its emotions.

What about in adults though? What happens if you don’t get your way or if something goes wrong? Do you shout and yell? Do you get upset and stay upset for hours or even days afterwards, dwelling on the problem and unable to “snap out of it”? Does a small setback ruin your entire day?

“Resilience” is a topic that I keep seeing a lot these days – the ability to bounce back and cope with upsets. Even though many toddlers experience extreme emotions, they do bounce back quickly once they have calmed down. They don’t tend to dwell on the problem for long as they live so much in the moment*. As adults we could often do with a bit more of this resilience, and being able to manage our emotions will aid us in all areas of life.

As our children experience stressful times at school, navigate friendship groups, and deal with the ups and downs of life, we would like to think that we are raising them to be as resilient as possible. We know they are going to have negative emotions, so how can we ensure that they learn how to deal with them in a healthy way? Here are some tips:

A great place to start with young children and toddlers is helping them recognise, understand and accept their feelings. They will do this partly through us talking to them about feelings, and partly through copying us. We can help toddlers learn the names of their emotions when we spot that they are feeling something, e.g. “I can see that you might be feeling sad because Daddy had to go to work.” Be careful here not to attribute emotions to them that they aren’t actually feeling – it’s always best to ask them whether they are feeling something, or be a bit tentative about it. As they get older they will be better able to name their emotions. You can talk about how characters in books or TV programmes might be feeling, so that your child builds an awareness of the feelings of others.

It is really important not to negate their emotions or tell them they are being silly for feeling something. Having resilience doesn’t mean that you don’t feel sad or angry – bottling up feelings is not a good idea. What we want to achieve is the child being able to recognise that they are feeling something, and then have strategies in place to make themselves feel better. After all, sometimes it is appropriate to feel sad or angry – we have these feelings for a reason. By helping children recognise when they are feeling these things it will make it much easier for them to deal with the emotions, rather than feeling out of control.

On the one hand it is important to take our children’s emotions seriously, but on the other you don’t want to go overboard with the sympathy or overact when they get upset. I suppose the best advice here is to think how you would like to be treated yourself – you would like a different reaction from your partner if you are crying because you stubbed your toe really badly to when your beloved pet had to be put down.

Horizontal side view of a lonely yellow flower growing on dried cracked soil
I mentioned copying earlier. This is the classic thing you soon discover once your child learns to talk. They start spouting things you say word for word, with even the emphasis in the same places. It can be quite a shock to hear yourself as your child hears you! If we can show our children how to recover from setbacks by recovering from setbacks ourselves, this is how they will gain resilience. If you drop your dinner on the floor how do you deal with it? Do you say things like “Why does this always happen to me?” Don’t forget who is watching. What message do you want them to take away? That bad things always happen? This isn’t about pretending that everything is rosy and wonderful the whole time, it’s about showing your child how you cope when things go wrong. So show your child (age-appropriate) negative emotions. Let them see you be cross or sad, but let them also see how you recover and move on.

If your child sees you expressing emotions in appropriate ways they will follow.

Another important aspect of resilience is building a positive outlook, and a growth mindset. There is an article here from Dr Hazel Harrison about growth mindsets and gratitude: Encouraging your child to be optimistic is a good way to increase that ability to bounce back. If you have a pessimistic outlook on life, and everything always goes wrong for you and never gets any better, how can you possibly expect to feel better? Again, this is another reason for modelling good behaviour I’m afraid!

Lastly, another excellent way to build resilience in children is to teach them how to become problem solvers. Learning how to find out answers for themselves, and how to break a problem down into manageable parts is a great life skill. Let them see you do this. Talk about problems that need solving with them – ask them for their ideas, you might be surprised what they come up with! Play games that promote problem solving, like puzzles, treasure hunts, or challenges. Don’t always jump in and solve everything for your child. If it hasn’t come to blows, let them work out with another child who gets to play with the toy that they both want. If children feel they have the ability to solve problems that life throws at them, not only does it give them a feeling of control over their life, it also will help them to see setbacks as challenges that can be overcome, rather than the end of the world.

It’s easy to feel worried about our children’s ability to be resilient, especially if they are going through a difficult time in their life. Don’t forget of course that young children are hugely emotional. Toddlers have no empathy, and aren’t really aware of others’ feelings, so don’t expect too much from them! As I said right at the beginning, toddlers are actually really good at bouncing back – so if this is an issue that concerns you, consider whether it’s more important right now to work on your own resilience rather than your child’s.

Thanks for reading!

*For more on toddler behaviour and dealing with tantrums etc, run regular workshops at the Suffolk Babies Centre.



One Response

  1. “Reset ” is a batter word than plot twist.
    Stop RESET Let’s do this …
    Gives all us a 2nd chance…get outta jail card to be forgiven and forgeten and moving forward now … let’s try again. All good

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